Three years ago, on one of my first ever cycle commutes in London, a male driver shouted at me, called me a wh*re and said I needed to ‘act like a lady’.
Seconds earlier, I had been waiting for an elderly woman to go over a zebra crossing while he had sat in his car behind me, pressing on the horn in long blasts.
I angrily mumbled at him to shut up before cycling off, but then the guy cut in front of me, his car blocking the road so I couldn’t move – and launched into his tirade.
I laughed it off, telling myself he was the one who looked ridiculous, but had to hold in hot tears for the rest of the journey home. My legs were shaking so much that I thought I was going to fall off my bike.
As commuters avoid public transport during the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a huge increase in bike sales. It’s great to see so many people taking up cycling, but switching four wheels for two isn’t always easy.
Pre-lockdown, I used to cycle to central London for work and would get verbal abuse from men at least once a week, such as a driver calling me an idiot for a near miss that was entirely his fault, or a pedestrian patronising me by shouting ‘Keep pedalling! You’re nearly there!’
I’m far from the only one. Lots of other women in my old office used to cycle, and I can remember plenty of mornings when we’d stand in the queue for the coffee machine, swapping horror stories about things men had just said to us on the roads.
It’s a tale as old as time – the assumption that women are less competent, and so are automatically to blame for any incidents.
Not long before lockdown, a man stepped out in front of my bike in the middle of Old Street roundabout, nowhere near a pedestrian crossing, causing me to almost crash into him.
He told me that I ‘should learn how to brake properly’ – and gave me the finger for good measure.
According to a study published in the Journal of Transport and Health, female cyclists are almost twice as likely as male cyclists to be on the receiving end of bad driving and harassment, with near misses occurring weekly to some and harassment happening an average of once a month.
There’s another layer to the abuse we face, too. Women can barely do anything alone in public without being sexually harassed about it, and this extends to cycling.
I’ve yet to meet a female cyclist who hasn’t had a predictable riding-themed catcall – or a variation on ‘wish I was your saddle!’ – yelled at her.
Cycling also often necessitates wearing tight clothing or short skirts, which some men take as an invitation to frantically beep their car horns or make sleazy comments as they pass us. I’m always relieved in winter, when it’s cool enough to cycle in a heavy jacket that covers me up.
Post-lockdown we need to be thinking about ways to make commuting by bike a safer option for women – and, first and foremost, how other road users’ attitudes towards us needs to change.
As much as I love cycling – not least because I could avoid starting my day wedged into someone’s sweaty armpit on the Central line – I often feel on edge, especially if the roads are busy.
During lockdown, with quieter streets as a result of far fewer people commuting, female cyclists have had a welcome break from the harassment. But with the country beginning to open up again, and with more people than ever taking it up, we can’t keep ignoring the problem.
The issue could be tackled by creating more cycle lanes that are completely separate from traffic, to limit the dangers posed and discomfort caused by drivers. One report found that if such a thing was implemented, 76 per cent of women believed it would encourage them to start cycling more often.
Really, though, we shouldn’t have to be kept separate from other road users for our own safety. Instead, people who harass female cyclists need to be told it’s unacceptable.
It would be helpful if other men who witness abuse towards us could call out those doing it – like lots of women, I’ve never felt safe responding to any kind of harassment directed at me, for fear it could turn into physical harm.
In many ways, during lockdown, I have missed my cycle commutes – strapping on my helmet, whizzing past London’s landmarks, feeling the sun on my face.
And in the middle of a pandemic, I’ve never felt so grateful for my bike – it means that I most likely won’t ever need to take public transport to work before a vaccine or treatment is found.
I just hope that a greater number of bikes on the roads brings with it a shift in attitudes, and that women will finally be free to cycle in peace. A girl can dream, right?
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